Christy title has the right Ring to it for Antrim hurlers says Terence McNaughton
THIS year's primary objective – promotion to Division 1B - has already been achieved, so the Antrim hurlers have retrained their sights on reaching the Christy Ring Cup final.
The Saffrons meet Down in Cushendall at 5pm on Saturday. The winners will know their final opponents with Carlow and Wicklow facing off two hours earlier.
The Ulster champions clinched promotion to Division 1B for 2018 – beating Carlow in the final, and Terence McNaughton's satisfaction at that achievement is readily apparent.
“That's where we want to be,” he declared.
“It's no secret that our priority this year was to get out of that division and to play at a higher level.
“And we would feel that that's the best way to improve Antrim hurling, and Ulster hurling - to try and get to the highest level that you can and sustain that.”
When these two old foes last met, back on April 29 in the Christy Ring Cup, Antrim emerged victorious on a 3-15 to 0-12 score line.
Although the 12-point win was certainly comprehensive, it should be noted that Down were without sticky man marker John McManus, free taker Danny Toner and the experienced Paul Sheehan.
In addition, Eoghan Sands and Conor Mageean were unwell with the flu, and another one of their key players Conor Woods lasted a mere 21 minutes of the contest.
Antrim were missing Neil McManus and Paul Shiels but, with Ciaran Johnston hitting two first half penalties, and Ciaran Clarke contributing 1-4 they were too strong on the day for the Ardsmen.
McNaughton knows Down will likely prove tougher opposition on Saturday.
“I would say that Down will be a lot stronger this time around,” he insisted.
“Usually in games like this between Antrim and Down – there's not a lot in it. We'll not be under-estimating them anyway.
“We'll be giving them the respect they deserve but we will be more worrying about ourselves than anybody else.
“It's winner takes all, [and the prize is] a day out in Croke Park and any hurler always wants to play in Croke Park – no matter what age you are.
“It's the home of hurling, it's the home of the GAA, and it's always nice to play on it.”
In their last four games, two in the Ulster championship, and two in the Christy Ring cup, Antrim have hit 14 goals and are clearly a potent force.
McNaughton sees room for improvement, however.
“The only thing about is there are games, believe it or not, where we should have been putting away a lot more,” he said.
“We're creating a lot of chances and not taking them all. It's something we've worked hard on over the past few weeks.
“It's trying to get that consistency with a team. Through the league we thought we were inconsistent, not even from game to game, but within a game.
“If you go back to the Armagh game – in that game we were very inconsistent within a game.
“We hurled alright in the last 10 or 15 minutes but it's trying to get that professionalism that guys go out and do their work and do the job that they have to do.
“And if we can do that, it's going to take a good team to beat us.”
Not that the Cushendall man doesn't see that progress is being made. It's just that he knows it doesn't come without the spilling of blood sweat and tears.
“We've had some great performances – but it's getting everybody to try and get them all on the one day is the secret, but better men than me have tried that and failed,” he said.
“We're very happy – they show great character from game to game. There are games in which we fought very hard and had to dig deep even though we weren't hurling that well.
“We still showed a great appetite for it and a great fight and will to win.
“This team is growing. I have always felt that a team is like a living thing nearly. It takes a while to develop and a while to grow and a while to develop a personality.
“You don't just go in and flick a switch and say: ‘This is how we are going to do it.'
“It takes night after night of working and working to try and build that team's character, and teamwork and camaraderie.”
The Antrim management are monitoring the fitness of Paul Shiels, with the Dunloy man suffering from a hamstring problem.